By Gary West, special to KentuckyDerby.com
Unless Pegasus suddenly appears out of nowhere, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands has its favorite. A flashy Californian with a modest provenance and a venerable trainer will be the center of attention when he arrives in Kentucky.
California Chrome has earned the honor. Saturday, he won the Santa Anita Derby with the fifth fastest clocking (1:47.52) in the race’s history, running the final three-eighths of a mile in 36.71 seconds and winning by more than five lengths while being geared down in the final yards. It was his fourth consecutive stakes victory, his domination measured in the accumulative margin of more than 24 lengths.
With the win and the 100 points it earned him, California Chrome assumed the top spot on the leaderboard. He has 150 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, followed by Vicar’s In Trouble with 120 and Wicked Strong, who won Saturday’s Wood Memorial, with 102. And while Mike Battaglia, the Churchill oddsmaker, has yet to make it official, consensus and universal acclaim have clearly established California Chrome as the Derby favorite. His win Saturday dispelled all doubt, for it was his best performance yet, which means it was the best performance by a 3-year-old this year.
After a crowded start Saturday at Santa Anita, he quickly assumed a stalking position just outside the early leader, Dublin Up. And just to California Chrome’s outside, Candy Boy was close, less than a length from the lead. Dublin Up led the field through moderate fractions – 47.02 seconds for the opening half-mile and 1:10.81 for three-quarters. On the backstretch, California Chrome dragged jockey Victor Espinoza up to the leader, and they were on even terms entering the second turn, where California Chrome began to assert his superiority. With a fourth quarter-mile in about 24.20, California Chrome quickly opened up a five-length advantage. Hoppertunity, who waited momentarily behind the leading trio, outfinished the others to be second, and Candy Boy, who offered little in the stretch, checked in another 3 ½ lengths behind the runner-up.
The pace was casual (the opening half-mile for the Santa Anita Oaks was 47.38, and for a two-turn optional claimer early on the card it was 45.77), and the surface, as usual, kindly favored speedsters (six of the seven winners on the main track either had the lead or were disputing it after an opening half-mile). Such circumstances might plant seeds of doubt about California Chrome’s ability to succeed at the next, longer step, at 1 ¼ miles at Churchill Downs, where the pace is likely to be stronger (relatively, when adjusted) and the track less kind. Still, by any measure, his effort was outstanding. After some crowding, he nimbly put himself in the race. And then he dominated a strong field that included the winners of the Rebel and the Robert Lewis Stakes. His 1:47.52 for the 1 1/8 miles was the fastest running of the Santa Anita Derby since Indian Charlie’s 1:47 in 1998. Of subtle but vital significance, California Chrome ran the second turn strongly – with a fourth quarter-mile that was as fast as his second – and that’s typically where horses win the Kentucky Derby, with an athletic move around the second turn. He put the race away by mid-stretch, and, again, that’s typically how the Kentucky Derby is won. As for his success going farther, yes, Santa Anita played to his style and his game, but he didn’t win with just his speed; he finished fastest of all. In fact, his final three-eighths of the Santa Anita Derby was faster than Constitution’s 36.76 in the Florida Derby and Wicked Strong’s 37.35 in the Wood and Vicar’s In Trouble’s 38.63 in the Louisiana Derby.
The day after the Santa Anita Derby, California Chrome’s 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, said the handsome Cal-bred tried to bite him repeatedly, which, all things considered, was a good sign. With his stable based at Los Alamitos, Sherman lives in a retirement community in Rancho Bernardo. In 1955, as the exercise rider, he accompanied the great Swaps to Kentucky; Swaps, of course, defeated Nashua to win the roses. And soon Sherman will return to Kentucky, with another chestnut and hoping for a similar outcome.
Wicked Strong also turned in a powerful effort Saturday while winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Highly regarded when the season began because of a third-place finish in the Remsen Stakes, Wicked Strong disappointed in two efforts at Gulfstream Park before returning to New York. He obviously didn’t appreciate the Florida sunshine or the Gulfstream surface. But he took a major step forward Saturday, rallying four-wide, storming by the leading trio to win by 3 ½ lengths and completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.31, the fastest clocking for the Wood since Bellamy Road’s 1:47.16 in 2005.
The effort suggested that Wicked Strong would go to Kentucky as one of the horses who’s indeed within reach of the sort of effort that’s typically required to win the Derby. He had a solid pace in front of him Saturday, and he’ll need a lively pace, of course, if he’s to enjoy any success in Kentucky, but he’s likely to get it. And although he does his best running on the straight – he ran the final furlong in 12.52 seconds – he can run the turn effectively, as was evident by his fourth quarter-mile in 24.83. Keep in mind when comparing his Wood to other preps that the Aqueduct surface was much slower than, say, Santa Anita’s, more than seven lengths slower at 1 1/8 miles and about 3 ½ lengths slower at a half-mile. And when he arrives in Kentucky, Wicked Strong will be preparing to make his first start as a 3-year-old, which might sound strange, but he was actually foaled, or born, on April 28. In other words, Wicked Strong is moving forward and developing at just the right time.
Samraat, the King of Queens, finished second, losing for the first time in his career; although he fought gamely, he had little left for the final furlong, where he trundled home in 13.28 seconds. And Social Inclusion, the 8-5 favorite who was making only the third start of his career after two sensational victories in Florida, faltered badly in deep stretch. After stalking, he rolled to the lead with apparent ease and was clear by 1 ½ lengths with a furlong to run, but finished third, a nose behind Samraat and 1 ½ lengths ahead of Schivarelli. Still, Social Inclusion was impressive. Coming from Florida, where he raced over a surface that carried his speed along, he probably wasn’t prepared to run 1 1/8 miles over a much more demanding track, against much stronger company than he ever had seen and when he couldn’t easily control the pace. He should move forward in his next start. Social Inclusion has a bright future, but he also has only 20 qualifying points for the Derby. Having to wait until the Preakness to join the Triple Crown fray wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen to the lightly raced colt.